An American Replay: The French Presidential Election

Just like with Brexit, the same scenario seems to play out in Western democracies.
02/22/2017 05:48 pm ET Updated Mar 03, 2017

The similarities between the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2017 French one are nothing short of striking. Just like here in November, electors in Europe could wake up to a surprise in May.

I am an optimist, with deep love for both France and the U.S. Nevertheless, my motherland has rarely shown such troubling signs. Discontent is similar to that experienced here prior to the presidential race. France today is home to a large, majority-white working class suffering from high unemployment due to the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. Concurrently, racial tensions and terrorist attacks have deteriorated relationships between ethnic and religious communities. Anger is fueling the election, leading to the emergence of two anti-system, anti-establishment front-runners for the first time in recent history.

Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron are somewhat comparable to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders respectively, with significant differences nonetheless. Noticeably, a record 84% of the French deem their presidential campaign is of ‘low quality’ (only 4 in 10 U.S voters last year said they were satisfied with the candidates, the lowest since 1992).

Le Pen appeals to working class voters by being the far-right candidate. She is campaigning on curbing immigration, giving preference to French nationals, raising protectionism and leaving the euro and the European Union. Macron is a former investment banker and an independent who is favored by the urban, the young and the educated French. He is a center-left candidate seeking to develop ties to the European Union, keep borders open, empower the technology sector and liberalize the labor market.

[Marine Le Pen] is today the most popular politician in France – what would have been widely unthinkable solely ten years ago. The election of Donald Trump boosted her image.

Like here last fall, the French election has witnessed accusations of Russian meddling, with Macron declaring that his campaign had been victim of hacking attempts and smearing. And just like Donald Trump, Le Pen favors bolstering ties with Russia.

She is today the most popular politician in France – what would have been widely unthinkable solely ten years ago. The election of Donald Trump boosted her image.

However, the French election follows a two-step process: unless a politician wins an absolute majority in the first round, the top two candidates face off in a second round. Le Pen currently polls at 27%, Macron at 20%.

A close third is François Fillon, a catholic, conservative right former prime minister. In an upset victory, he defeated former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppé to win the right-wing nomination last year. Up until last month, he was favored to win the presidency. But he became embroiled in a public funds misuse scandal and is being investigated on accusations of having provided his wife and two of their children with fictitious jobs paid over 900,000 euros.

Fillon’s issues helped Macron, and he is expected to prevail in a second round against Le Pen.

Nevertheless, just like in the U.S. last fall, an unexpected scenario could very well play out, all the more since Macron’s recently provoked outrage over remarks calling France’s colonial history in Algeria a ‘crime against humanity’. At the same time, a wave of riots in impoverished suburbs erupted ten days ago in reaction to a police brutality incident (all so similar to the events of Ferguson, Baltimore or Charlotte) – helping Le Pen’s numbers.

And here is where the subtleties start: Fillon had been frontrunner for a reason. He appeals to the large non-Parisian population of France, still primarily Christian and socially conservative. If deprived of the possibility to pick him in a second round, more than expected of these voters might choose Le Pen, who could be seen as closer to conservative, provincial values.

In essence, at a time of heightened anxiety, trauma from terrorism and the perceived spreading radical Islam, Le Pen is offering a nationalist message that has chances to prove more in tune with the times. Macron speaks of digitalizing the economy and making labors laws less rigid, without addressing what many believe is the most important matter within the European Union: immigration.

In a run-off, polls predict 58% of the vote going to Macron and 42% to Le Pen, with a rapidly narrowing gap (Macron polled at 66% in early February). Hence, solely 8% of voters will decide France’s fate. And these statistics assume both that polls are reliable and that there are no ‘closet’ Le Pen voters (a bold assumption).

Just like with Brexit, country after country, the same scenario seems to play out in Western democracies. Job losses in traditional industries lead to widespread discontent, social unrest and anti-system candidates who win, while a large part of the electorate is unaware of their real appeal –and left dumbfounded. The French election is following the pattern. Will the outcome too? Too early to say, but it is a real possibility, and it has not been taken seriously enough.

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